Christopher Deppmann / Biology

In an era of internet connectivity where access to information is ubiquitous, we must change the type of “core knowledge” that we deliver to students in class. Rather than specific details, we must now train students to quickly find, understand and evaluate the credibility of new information rather than to recall it from memory. In this way, “meta-learning” or “learning how to find and validate information” is far more important than memorizing a series of facts. My focus over the past 3 years has been to help students efficiently retrieve and interpret information in order to synthesize new concepts. Toward this end, I have had to challenge first principles, which I believe is in the spirit of the Mead foundation. Ideally, in order for students to master meta-learning, it is important to interact with them for longer than a single semester. I have accomplished this through fostering independent research as part of the many undergraduate research assistant activities ongoing in my lab. In my first 3 years at The University of Virginia, I have trained more than 15 Undergraduate researchers, with over 90% of them remaining in my lab for their entire undergraduate careers. I am beginning to see the outcome of these long- term undergraduate research experiences: My first 4 undergraduate students have just graduated and all are pursuing graduate level training: 1.) Kelvin Chan received a Fulbright fellowship to study neuroscience in Austria for the next year. 2.) Christopher Dawson will attend graduate school (for a PhD) at MIT. 3.) Danielle Heffner will attend medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, and 4.) Catherine Jansch will work as a scribe in Northern Virginia for the next year prior to attending medical school.

Beyond their time with me, I believe it is critical for these students to interact regularly with senior researchers in my lab and adjacent labs. After all, conceptual breakthroughs rarely happen in a vacuum. Toward this end we have journal club format seminars where we perform an in depth analysis of primary literature. One paper is covered per week with a review article also assigned for background. There are no presenters; rather we have discussion leaders who prepare 2-3 background slides to set the stage for the article. Each attendee presents a few panels from the week’s paper. The participants in this journal club have the opportunity to take this seminar for credit, however most do not. I’m convinced that this type of focused, in-depth, collaborative analysis is the best method for students to gain experience interpreting primary data and questioning the data too – the world wide web is a font of information but much of it is un-regulated so it is critical that these students develop the ability to find, challenge and validate or invalidate this information.

For my “Dream Idea” I would like to “double down” on the notion of developing a long-term, hyper-collaborative, hyper-interactive environment. Toward this end, I propose a weekly “tea time” that hosts all of the undergraduates, professors, graduate researchers and post-doctoral fellows on our floor; this comprises 5 labs in total. I estimate that there will be 30 attendees every week with over half being undergraduates. It is remarkable how powerful a weekly “break” involving free snacks and beverage can be, in bringing people together. Informal interaction between undergraduate students, professors, graduate students, and post-docs serves to flatten the academic hierarchy. The sooner undergrads feel comfortable in the group dynamic of a research team, the sooner they will make substantive contributions. In this way they learn the power of asking naive questions and quickly recognize that these can often be the most profound. Leaving the tea time unstructured is important as it will help undergraduate researchers get a realistic sense of what comes next, allowing them to move on to graduate school with their eyes open. The Mead foundation grant would be sufficient to fund a year’s-worth of tea times and 2 dinner outings, and have a profound impact on the future direction and research of the next generation of researchers.